Lawrence Zazzo: Weeping Philosophers

Lawrence Zazzo

(BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, at the Wigmore Hall, 1 May 2017)

I’ve been waiting for two-and-a-half years to see Lawrence Zazzo in the flesh. In the first flush of my Baroque obsession, back in October 2014, I bought his album A Royal Trio and fell in love with his rendition of Handel’s Va tacito e nascosto. Ever since, I’ve longed to see him live and finally got my wish in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall. Languishing in the realms of the early Baroque, this recital presented a cornucopia of lute-songs and cantatas by Caccini, Frescobaldi, Strozzi and Durante. Zazzo was accompanied by three gifted musicians: Silas Wollston on organ and harpsichord; Daniele Caminiti on archlute and baroque guitar; and Jonathan Rees on bass viol and viola da gamba. By heaven, it was worth the wait.

If you just want to read my praise of Zazzo’s voice, feel free to skip ahead to the end, but do hang around if you fancy hearing more about these early composers and their work. This isn’t an area I know at all well, so I’ve enjoyed doing a little research to give the names a bit of historical context. The programme was inspired by Barbara Strozzi’s 1651 cantata L’Eraclito amoroso, which imagines the lachrymose philosopher torn by the pangs of love. Starting from the juxtaposition of Heraclitus and his laughing counterpart Democritus, Zazzo and co put together a series of songs which explores the merriment and torment of love. These pieces weren’t just interesting for their theme, but also for their period: they cover the years in which ‘opera’ was invented and, in some cases, glance even further back.

For example, the very first piece on the agenda was by Philippe Verdelot (c1480-c1530), who died even before Monteverdi’s father was born. It’s a lute-song, the instrument providing a melodic base for the voice, which rises up almost a cappella. I’d never heard of Verdelot before today, which shows my ignorance, because he was a fascinating character: born in France, he came to Italy while still very young and found work as maestro di cappella at the Florentine Baptistery. In 1526 he joined forces with a Florentine diplomat and playwright, a certain Niccolò Machiavelli, and wrote some songs for a production of his bawdy comedy La Mandragola. These songs are now said to be the very first madrigals. Connections like this, between my worlds of history and music, make me very happy; and there’s more! Zazzo had chosen Verdelot’s song Con l’angelico riso (published in 1533), whose lyrics were by Ludovico Martelli, of whom there is a portrait in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (said to be by Pontormo).

The next piece in the programme takes us almost a hundred years forward to Sigismondo d’India’s Piangono al pianger mio (1609). D’India was a slightly younger contemporary of Monteverdi but, although he lived in the ‘age of opera’, he doesn’t seem to have dabbled in the new art form. He was content with lute-songs and madrigals, like this. I should add that here, too, the lyricist is of interest: it’s Ottavio Rinuccini, who wrote the librettos for the two very first operas: Peri’s Dafne (1598) and Euridice (1600). We’re not a hundred miles away from Verdelot, but the musical accompaniment is a little more complex, with a viol joining the lute.

Daniele Caminiti

Daniele Caminiti © Tonhalle Dusseldorf / Susanne Diesner

We’re not moving in a strict chronology, because the next piece carries us forward to 1670, to Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) and his song No, no, mio core. Almost a century and a half after Verdelot, the music does sound different: the voice backed up with lute, viol and harpsichord. I suppose its function is essentially similar to the earlier songs, but it’s more fully orchestrated and you can imagine it having slipped out of a Cavalli opera or something similar. Next, though, we shot briefly back in time again, to Giulio Caccini (1551-1618). Caccini is famous for having collaborated with Jacopo Peri on Euridice in 1600, thereby having joint claim on the title Father of Opera, but I hadn’t consciously heard any of his music before.

The first piece we heard was Dalla porta d’oriente, a very jolly song published in 1614, which immediately made my ears prick up. I don’t like to point fingers, but someone is guilty of plagiarism here, because the third line of this song uses exactly the same melody as the first line of Monteverdi’s Vi ricordi, o bosch’ ombrosi from his Orfeo (first performed in 1607). Considering the dating, I presume Caccini is the one who needs to be given a posthumous slap on the wrist. Then was another of Caccini’s songs – Sfogava con le stelle (1602), in which an infatuated lover sees his beloved’s face in the stars. As the music until this point had been elegantly simple, I was struck by the delicious tumble of notes that Zazzo introduced on the phrase ‘i vivi ardori miei’: a waterfall of coloratura.

This led into a series of works by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643). Born in Ferrara, Frescobaldi spent most of his working life in Rome, at that artistically potent period when the city was home to the likes of the Carracci, Caravaggio, Vouet and Poussin. He was particularly famous for his keyboard compositions and, correspondingly, we heard two of his instrumental pieces: the first, Toccata e Ricercare cromatico (1635), played on the organ (thanks to a clever switch on the harpsichord, I presume) and then the Partite sopra l’aria della Romanesca, parts 1, 4, 5, 9 and 14 (1615), for harpsichord. Both were performed with great feeling by Silas Wollston, drawing out their delicate moods.

Mixed in with these were two vocal pieces: Se l’aura spira (1630) and Così mi sprezzate (also 1630). I loved both of these, for different reasons. The first was familiar to me from Franco Fagioli’s early Canzone CD but Zazzo pulled it off with greater flair: a robust, joyous dance that had my feet tapping (A’ balli, a’ balli liete venite!). The second was deliciously subversive: not a song of love and longing, but of spiteful vengeance. The jilted lover taunts his beloved: her beauty has a brief season and, when it fades, he will be there to laugh at her foolish pride. Zazzo sang with relish, spitting out the words.

Silas Wollston

Silas Wollston

The main piece was up next: Barbara Strozzi’s cantata L’Eraclito amoroso (1651). Strozzi (1619-1677) was a multi-talented Venetian singer, poet and composer who studied with Cavalli and benefitted from her father’s open-minded encouragement of her talents. Some of her contemporaries said she was a courtesan, a claim which seems to be founded in jealous spite as opposed to any actual evidence (I’m unavoidably reminded of the online sexual slander that still greets any talented, high-profile woman daring to act in a man’s world). As Strozzi seems to have had a very quiet life, I’d also need a little more proof before accepting that she’s the tantalisingly dishabille sitter in Bernardo Strozzi’s Viola da Gamba Player in Dresden. Bernardo is a wonderful painter, whom I love, but no relation to the musical Strozzis, as far as I know. But back to Barbara. Her Heraclitus is even more mournful than usual, having been betrayed by the object of his love. The whole cantata is suffused with plaintive despair and the key line ‘la fede è morta‘ recurs again and again, before a very beautiful ending.

As Silas Wollston had had his moment, Daniele Caminiti was next in line for a solo. This took the form of the Toccata XIII by Alessandro Piccinini (1566-c1638), published in 1623. Played on the baroque guitar, it was a lovely spritz of Spanish-sounding Baroque, though why it should sound Spanish is a mystery as Piccinini rarely made it beyond Ferrara and Bologna. (His brother Filippo, though, interestingly, composed the first opera performed in Spain.) Caminiti played with emotional intensity, locked into the music, his fingers dancing over the strings.

And then it was time for the final piece, Seneca funato ossia la crudeltà di Nerone by Francesco Durante (1684-1755). Presumably this dates from the beginning of the 18th century, but it wasn’t published until around 1800, long after Durante’s death. Although I suppose it’s a cantata, it doesn’t have the usual romantic theme. On the contrary, it’s almost like a mini opera, as the great philosopher addresses his former pupil and the people of Rome. There wasn’t an awful lot of light relief in this piece, as you might imagine, although the first of its two arias (in which Seneca calls down the vengeance of the gods) sounded implausibly upbeat for the circumstances. The second aria was… well, long. So long, in fact, that if you listen to the recital on the radio, the end was cut off.

Now, Durante can write a fine dramatic cantata but you can’t deny this was a slightly gloomy piece on which to end. I can’t say he immediately grabbed me as a composer to explore further, but I have to be extremely grateful to him nevertheless, because he was not only a musician but also a teacher. And his pupils included three composers who have really caught my eye over the years: Pergolesi; Jommelli; and, best of all, Vinci, without whom I’d never have got into Baroque opera. Fortunately, however, we weren’t sent out into the damp afternoon with Seneca’s woes hanging in our ears. There was an encore (which was cut off if you were listening to it on the radio): Sì dolce il tormento, my very favourite Monteverdi lute-song. I have several versions of this and find it achingly romantic, so to hear Zazzo sing it was a real treat.

Jonathan Rees

Jonathan Rees

Now, despite his reputation and his busy schedule, Zazzo remains elusive for those who can’t make it to one of his performances. Unlike most modern countertenors, he has only recorded one solo Baroque CD (the above-mentioned Royal Trio) and a charming album of Handel duets with Nuria Rial. Both are treasures. I note with fascination that he’s also recorded a CD called Byrdland, tackling English Renaissance songs with the help of a saxophone quartet, which sounds… interesting. Yet he’s also done a number of operas: you can also watch his Giulio Cesare (set in a museum!) and listen to his Riccardo Primo, his Arsamenes and his sublime Gulatiero in Scarlatti’s Griselda, among others. I’ve made it a mission to get my hands on as much of his music as possible.

He has the most splendid voice: a mellow, honeyed tone with immense power behind it, which ranges from imperious high notes to the deepest, most velvety depths. I hope he’ll forgive me for saying this, but Zazzo is a few years older than my usual batch of singers (Cencic, Jaroussky etc); and yet his voice shows no strain, just the voluptuous confidence of an artist at the top of his game. I wonder, between you and me, if that’s because he’s been sensible about his range, not risking the ruin of his voice by pushing himself to soprano levels when he’s more comfortable in the mezzo and alto region. Ah, and in the flesh he sounds even better than he does on recordings: the Wigmore’s warm acoustics magnified and enriched his voice, and he sang effortlessly: a consummate artist. He has a deliciously dramatic engagement with the music he performs – a good sense of humour, I think – and seems to be a very pleasant, convivial sort of chap. I noticed with approval that he simply presented himself as part of the band, even singing while seated at a music stand, and making sure that his fellow musicians had plenty of recognition.

All in all, watching him was a complete pleasure and I left radiant, fully recompensed for my two years’ wait and more. It’s at moments like this that I feel, very acutely, how lucky I am to be able to pop along to this sort of concert. Thank God for the Wigmore! Now, of course, my appetite has only been whetted to a keen point. More Zazzo please, and soon!

Hmm. That post was longer than I meant it to be… Until the end of May, you can listen to the recital on the BBC’s website, and I encourage you to do so.

Find out more about Lawrence Zazzo

Lawrence Zazzo

Lawrence Zazzo in costume from the cover shoot for his album A Royal Trio

3 thoughts on “Lawrence Zazzo: Weeping Philosophers

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